One of the more interesting events in the history of composing happened to the creative juices of the eminent Czech composer Leos Janacek in the last years of his life. In 1914, when he entered his sixties, he was a widely respected but still essentially provincial composer based in Brno. Then began an amazing creative surge that lasted until his death in 1928, in which he produced most of his greatest works, establishing him as the equal in the musical galaxy of his fellow Czechs, Smetana and Dvorak. Among the finest of them are four operas that helped make Janacek the most distinguished opera composer Czechoslovakia has produced -- works that we are now just getting to know really well in this country.
One of the most powerful operas, "Katya Kabanova," was performed last night in a splendid production -- perhaps for the first time in this city -- by the Summer Opera Theatre Company at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre.
"Katya" is really a Russian opera -- not just in subject but also in tradition -- written by a Czech in Czech (the current version is in English translation).
The setting, a country house on the Volga, is about as Russian as you can get short of the Kremlin itself. And its topics, derived from a play by the Russian writer A.N. Ostrovsky, are very Russian -- sexual repression, adultery, loss of honor and suicide.
The music has a wonderful quicksilver ambivalence, giving the stifling atmosphere of the opera particularly memorable dramatic and psychological depth; it is really splendid drama. One moment the music is idyllic, another it is passionate; it is stormy in a storm scene and then it is tortured and grim, especially in Katya's lengthy final monologue, before she drowns herself in the Volga. Melodies tend to be brief, elliptical and often quite poignant.
There may have been doubts about how the company would handle the music with its small orchestra. Janacek ordinarily wrote for a huge orchestra. But conductor David Stockton successfully reduced the score to small orchestra, taking advantage of the fact that Janacek, for all the splendor of his distinctive timbres, did not go in that much for heavy, rich textures. And some of the evening's solo playing was excellent, as was the conducting.
The title part is a rich one for a soprano who is beautiful, can act and has a fairly high voice of some size. Metropolitan Opera soprano Myra Merritt, who studied at Catholic University, performed with great distinction. She had all the necessary qualities, especially the kind of beauty that gave credibility to the notion that more than one man would fall for her.
Another gem of a role is the stern, and ultimately cruel, mother-in-law, Marfa Kabanova (Kabanicha), who presides with an iron hand over the hothouse atmosphere. Washington mezzo Marguerita Kris performed quite a feat by taking the role on short notice, mastering it in 11 days and giving one of the two best performances of the evening, along with Merritt. Her son, Tichon, was nicely done by tenor Jon Gilbertson.
The part of Boris, Katya's lover, was better sung than acted by tenor Michael Crouse. Other especially good performances: Alan Baker as Dikoy, a rich merchant; and Jody Rapport as Barbara.
John Lehmeyer's direction was splendid, and Thomas Hickey's sets were atmospheric in their modest way.
"Katya Kabanova" is a truly fine opera, and is worth a special effort to see on the repeats Friday and Sunday.